In late August, a few days before George W. Bush delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union led several hundred protesters through the streets of Manhattan on a march in support of poor people’s rights. At the front of the procession, beneath a banner emblazoned with the slogan Disappeared: Hiding the Poor, was Patricia Lewis. A wheelchair-bound African-American woman, Lewis lives in Section 8 housing in Harlem. She was there to protest the Bush Administration’s repeated attempts to slash funding for Section 8, a federal program that provides 2 million low-income familes with housing vouchers each year. But Lewis’s indignation was not directed solely at Bush. A few weeks earlier she’d gone to Boston to serve as a delegate at the Democratic convention. There, too, she’d been appalled at how little the plight of the poor had figured in the speeches of her party’s leaders. “I was very disappointed,” she said.

It’s not hard to fathom why. For all the energy President Bush and John Kerry have expended on courting swing voters over the past six months, neither candidate has paid much attention to a segment of the population whose size has grown steadily in recent years: the poor. According to the latest Census Bureau report, 35.9 million Americans lived in poverty in 2003, the third consecutive year the figure has increased. Of this total, 15.3 million lived in extreme poverty–meaning they subsisted on less than half the official poverty line of $18,810 for a family of four. The number of Americans in the latter category has grown by 3 million since Bush took office. It is the highest level since the Census Bureau began collecting such data three decades ago.

These are trends you would think John Kerry and the Democrats would be taking pains to highlight: The Bush Administration has, after all, staked a lot on the claim that its brand of conservatism is a compassionate one. “In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation’s promise,” Bush proclaimed in his 2001 inaugural address, this before pushing through two massive tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich.

But while Kerry has not hesitated to tell Americans that Bush’s economic policies are failing them, he has rarely placed the emphasis on how those policies have exacerbated the suffering of the least advantaged. When it comes to poverty, says Arnie Graf of the Industrial Areas Foundation, an alliance of citizens’ organizations founded by the legendary social activist Saul Alinsky, “it feels to us like we have bipartisan neglect. Maybe there’s a tailor-made speech in a particular place, and Kerry speaks to it more than Bush does, but I don’t hear any systematic message.”

To the extent there has been one, the systematic message of the Kerry campaign has revolved not around the poor but “working families” and the middle class: the segment of the population whose travails the Senator from Massachusetts endlessly plays up on the stump, and whose experiences in turn permeate the columns of the liberal pundits and columnists covering him. Recently, during a campaign stop in Florida, Kerry told a crowd he had a message for every “middle-class American family…. I’ve got your back. I’ve got your back because I know what you’re going through.” The choice in the coming election, he explained, is between a President “who gives more and more to those with the most” and a “new choice for the great middle class and all those struggling to join it.” This is the language of liberalism in the era of George W. Bush, a language aimed at swing voters who want better jobs and more affordable healthcare but who don’t necessarily sympathize with the struggles of inner-city residents or the chronically unemployed. It is a poll-tested message geared to addressing the anxieties of the middle class, with the emphasis placed on expanding opportunity for all Americans rather than introducing bold initiatives to benefit and empower those at the bottom of the income scale.

All of which is, in the eyes of some progressive strategists, exactly as it should be. There is, after all, no clearer evidence that the Bush Administration’s policies aren’t working for the majority of Americans than the growing insecurity among middle-class families, more and more of whom must juggle multiple jobs while struggling to pay for healthcare or send their kids to college. “Our feeling is that the middle-class squeeze, as it gets more illuminated, provides the best lens through which to see the failure of social and economic policy,” says Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute, a nonprofit organization that has highlighted how trends ranging from the outsourcing of jobs to the declining value of the minimum wage have imperiled the future of the middle class.

For too long, Schlesinger argues, progressives have focused on championing the interests of disadvantaged groups while assuming that middle-class Americans can speak for themselves, an approach that has enabled conservatives to woo such voters by emphasizing social issues (and obscuring the broader effects of their policies). “The framework we are interested in changing is one in which the middle class is not part of the progressive coalition,” she says. To this end, the institute has produced a scorecard ranking members of Congress from both parties on issues of concern to the middle class. This hardly necessitates ignoring the poor, Schlesinger contends, since the latter have an interest in advancing many of the same goals.

Schlesinger is right that such issues need not be viewed as a zero-sum game: In a nation where only 60 percent of people now receive health insurance through an employer, expanding access to affordable medical care is as vital to the growing ranks of the poor as to the middle class. And there are undeniable political benefits to the approach she advocates. Policies designed to broaden opportunity for all Americans are more likely to win popular support (and thus be enacted) than those promoting income redistribution or the interests of a particular racial or socioeconomic group. Moreover, at least until recently, poor people have tended not to vote in numbers proportional to their percentage of the population. In the 2000 elections, voters below the poverty line had a turnout rate of 38 percent, compared with 66 percent among those who earned twice the poverty level or more. Thus, it is assumed, an agenda tailored to the interests of the poor simply doesn’t translate into enough votes.

But the low turnout rate among low-income voters can be viewed another way: as a reflection of the profound alienation poor people understandably feel toward those in power. “I think we’re in a vicious circle where politicians don’t expect poor people to vote in proportion to their numbers and consequently don’t speak to their issues,” says Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC. “Poor people don’t hear any discussion of issues that matter to them and thus don’t turn out for elections. That circle is at the root of the deafening silence [about poverty].”

In recent months, numerous voter-registration drives targeting low-income communities have been launched in an effort to break this cycle–grassroots initiatives that may well help tilt the balance in crucial swing states to John Kerry. But the organizing on the ground has yet to be reinforced by public discussion of issues of concern to the people being mobilized. Far from being a sensible bow to political reality, Bhargava argues, such silence severely hampers the prospect of advancing a progressive political agenda over the long term. “I think there is an almost unspoken consensus in parts of the progressive community that poverty isn’t a winning issue,” he says, “and that view is buttressed by an army of political consultants. But progressives have only made progress in advancing social justice in this country when we’ve grown the number of people who participate in politics and civil life. Without a serious effort to engage low-income people in policy and politics, it’s hard to imagine building a majority progressive coalition.”

Even in the short term, the argument that poverty is a losing issue is not as self-evident as it might seem. It does not explain, for instance, why John Edwards vaulted past Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt and other candidates in the Democratic primaries when he began talking about the “two Americas” and the moral imperative of reducing poverty. Nor does it account for why, in a poll conducted earlier this year of 1,000 people of diverse faith backgrounds, 78 percent of those surveyed said they would rather hear about a presidential candidate’s plan for fighting poverty than about his position on gay marriage. (The survey was conducted jointly by Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, and Tom Freedman, a Democratic consultant.) Some of the same strategists who argue that liberals should avoid harping on the plight of the poor simultaneously recognize the yearning within the electorate for leaders who can articulate a clear, compelling moral agenda.

Conservatives, at least, appear to understand this. One may view George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, which calls for the federal government to fund churches and other religious organizations so they can take the lead in providing social services to the poor, as a cynical attempt to win the votes of African-American clergy (as well as an adroit end-run around the separation of church and state). But it is also part of a calculated strategy to soften the image of the GOP and bolster its claim to represent the true interests of the disadvantaged. The latter notion might sound absurd to liberals, who have watched the Bush Administration do everything in its power to skew the distribution of wealth and income toward the affluent in recent years. But it is not absurd to voters, who hear Republicans confidently advocating policies (however misguided they may be) that target low-income people–promoting marriage, funding faith-based groups–while hearing from Democrats…nothing. Five years ago, Jason DeParle published an essay in The Washington Monthly, “The Silence of the Liberals,” in which he pointed out the irony. “It is striking how little liberals have to say about the poor while conservatives glow and boast,” DeParle observed. “To the extent that there’s a national conversation about poverty, conservatives now control it.”

Of course, there was a reason for this. By the time DeParle was writing, liberals had spent several decades struggling to defend a welfare system that Republicans used as a battering ram against them, an effort that culminated in Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Conservatives have controlled the debate about poverty ever since, one could argue, because they won it. But, as DeParle noted then and as he further amplifies in his new book, American Dream, an in-depth examination of how welfare reform has played out in Wisconsin, ending welfare-as-we-knew-it hardly put the problem of deeply entrenched poverty to rest. It hasn’t solved the crisis of spiraling housing costs facing millions of low-income families. It hasn’t provided childcare and other essential services (or for that matter a living wage) to millions of single mothers who have joined the workforce. It didn’t stop 45 million Americans from going without healthcare last year. Nor did it address the problem of the residential isolation of the poor–shored up by exclusionary zoning policies and woefully inadequate public transportation–which, in the view of Angela Glover Blackwell, president of the advocacy group PolicyLink, is the single greatest barrier to opportunity for residents of the nation’s inner-city neighborhoods.

The fact that conservatives no longer have welfare to kick around when such issues come up is, one could argue, not a problem for progressives but an opportunity. As Dalton Conley, a sociologist at New York University, observes, removing the specter of the lazy, undeserving “welfare queen” from the debate has made it far easier for politicians to talk about poor people without worrying about provoking a (racially inflected) backlash. Peter Edelman, a one-time Robert Kennedy aide and renowned expert on poverty, agrees. For all its problems, he says, one undeniably good thing that came out of welfare reform is that “the public isn’t as angry [at poor people] anymore.”

To criticize John Kerry for not taking advantage of this is not to suggest that he would do no better than Bush in addressing the needs of poor people were he elected. Kerry has advocated raising the minimum wage by 36 percent (to $7 an hour) over the next three years, an increase he claims will help 7 million working people escape poverty. His health plan calls for having the federal government extend coverage to all children in families below the poverty line, which would then enable states to cover those with incomes up to three times this level (Kerry would pay for this by rolling back Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans). It’s not universal coverage, but an analysis by Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University estimates the plan would provide 27 million currently uninsured Americans with medical care.

Nor would Kerry appoint people like Alphonso Jackson as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who believes poverty is merely a state of mind from which the indigent must liberate themselves. The tone of the discussion in Washington on issues ranging from housing to healthcare would undoubtedly grow more sensible and more humane. These are not minor differences. Even so, the fact remains that at the level of vision and strategy, the Kerry campaign has passed up the opportunity to articulate anything that can remotely be characterized as a bold antipoverty agenda. The ideas liberals present these days that deal with poverty–to the extent they are even willing to discuss them–tend to be framed around the concerns and anxieties of the middle class. The fact that poor people may also benefit is rarely mentioned, almost as if this is incidental or even embarrassing.

“At some point, we’re going to need to have a conversation about how to respond to things the market doesn’t take care of,” says Deepak Bhargava. Democrats will need to find the courage, in other words, to remind Americans that not everyone can be lifted into the middle class merely by kicking them off the welfare rolls; that, in a country with sluggish employment, a rental housing crisis in many cities and hundreds of communities where good jobs (not to mention adequate training and education) simply don’t exist, repairing and strengthening the social safety net is necessary as well.

“We’re running a country in which we have literally millions of people who are outside any definition of inclusion,” says Edelman. Until more Democrats are willing to talk about this, the 15 million Americans living in conditions of extreme destitution will continue to remain invisible. Conservatives will continue to claim that they’re the ones with the fresh ideas about poverty. And people like Angela Perry will continue to wonder whether both candidates in the presidential election this year are out of touch with reality. Perry, like Patricia Lewis, attended the poor people’s march during the Republican National Convention. She traveled to the event with a group of low-income women from Louisville, Kentucky. “We need better childcare, better housing, jobs, education,” she said in explaining why she’d decided to make the trip. Did she think George W. Bush and the Republicans sincerely cared about the poor? “No,” she answered flatly. And what about the Democrats?

She paused. “No comment,” she smiled, and then exchanged a knowing look with the women standing next to her, not one of whom ventured an alternative opinion.